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The future of news is the future of democracy

Opinion

If media organisations don’t crack the secret to making money from serious news, local reportage will all but disappear. The answer, argues Malcolm King, lies in re-establishing trust.

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On a trip a few years ago, I travelled in peak hour on the London tube and the New York City subway and not one person was reading a printed newspaper.

Commuter’s faces were glued to their mobiles. Their news source of choice? Facebook.

The great editor of The Age, Graham Perkin, wrote: “News is what interests people. News is not only what interests reporters.”

Is a YouTube clip with a story of a dog swimming underwater news? You bet. It’s not hard news but it might interest people.

Consumers can now pre-set the news they receive on their phones or desktops.

The future will be awash with clickbait stories but the real quest is to find business models which will make hard news, features and investigative journalism, pay.

On current trends, most Australian daily capital city print newspapers will close in the next five to 10 years. Subscription and advertising revenue are not enough to fund their production costs.

For most metropolitan newspapers, paywall revenue from their digital publications won’t be sufficient to fund comprehensive reporting on a state-wide scale.

Even so, The Australian, the Herald Sun and the AFR may survive online with a strong professional readership base, focusing on politics, sport and finance.

The good news is that some people will pay if the content is local, researched and compelling.

The bad news is not enough people are subscribing. For too many years, the press has bashed the public with stories laden with political values and opinion dressed up as fact.

It’s no wonder the public are not subscribing in large numbers. Trust in the veracity of news is at an all-time low.

Many readers believe that original and general news – news written by a reporter using verifiable sources and scrutinised by an editorial system – will always be there. This assumption is wrong.

Much local reporting comes from metropolitan newsrooms: if they close, rounds such as courts, local politics and business, will not be reported.

This matters: the race to find profitable business models and the future of an informed democracy are intimately connected.

New business models

The Guardian Australia turned its first profit after five years of operations with a balance of $700,000 in 2017-2018.

There are issues with aspects of BuzzFeed’s venture capital model, with the once seemingly unstoppable online juggernaut announcing earlier this year that it would cut 15 per cent cut of its staff. Its Australian newsroom was gutted, leaving it with three reporters.

Australina site Crikey, which operates on a subscriber model, has hired 12 investigative journalists, many from the “heritage” newspapers. Much of the money, in this case, will come from private investors.

While I’m not a fan of paywalls, preferring micropayments (paying to access one story), they are here to stay. Ultimately, the decision to pay will be based on the quality of the content.

Individual preferences or individual biases?

In 2014, Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook’s goal was to “build the perfect personalised newspaper for every person in the world.”

Hot on his heels was Internet entrepreneur Jonah Peretti, who changed how digital ‘news’ was presented. He helped establish the Huntington Post and later started BuzzFeed.

Like Zuckerberg, Peretti created algorithms which tracked people’s ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ but he went one step further. He conducted behavioural experiments on the type of content people liked and shared.

He wasn’t greatly interested in ‘high brow’ readers of The Washington Post, the New York Times, The Guardian or The Age. He just wanted to know what people – especially young people – liked reading.

Peretti found they liked lists, ‘hating people’, ‘luxury porn’ and reading about celebrities. You can see the legacy of this approach in some local media – stories such as ‘Twenty Things We Hate About Victorians’, ‘Fifty Ways to Tell You’re a South Aussie’ or ‘Ten Ways to Eat a Pie at the Footy’. He discovered that these sorts of stories get high readers – when the stories went viral, the advertisements (sometimes buried in the story) went viral too.

Serious journalists accused Peretti of dumbing down the news. Then, they copied his strategies.

The irony is algorithmic-powered platforms like Google and Facebook focus users on the same profusion of overblown trends, in the guise of giving each reader a personalised experience.

The fear is readers will remain in their cognitive silos, only being served “news” which supports their world view.

Facebook and fake news

There is a dark side to the digital future of news, apart from the loss of jobs in journalism.

Facebook is the largest and most powerful media network the in the world with some 2.4 billion users a month. It is a network and news aggregator of unprecedented power.

With the exception of News Corporation, many major news organisations simply give Facebook most of their content, knowing its extraordinary reach and penetration.

After the Trump election in 2016, it was found that Facebook had distributed false, Russian-manufactured anti-Clinton stories, to millions of its users. It had also sold massive amounts of data to advertisers.

While Facebook has installed some basic editorial fact-checking systems and lowered the ranking of “untrustworthy” news and business stories, this shows how fake news can manipulate public opinion on a global scale.

Local news and trust

Beyond the clickbait, people still have an elemental hunger for local news. They want to know what’s happening in their council, with wages, the price of bread, childcare, housing affordability, flu shot availability and the latest on their footy team.

Shallow stories about exploding water mains and booster pieces on “business confidence” won’t cut it. The public’s trust in the media has to be re-earned.

No matter what business model a proprietor has in place, if the consumers don’t trust a news publication, it will not survive.

The future of digital news is about creating a relationship between the publication, the reporters and readers. There may be fewer “reads” (always a dubious metric) with straight news rather than cute kitten stories, but more loyalty and impact.

While Jonah Peretti was demonised by the “serious media”, he asked two questions of the public not enough legacy news leaders had asked: What news do you read? Why?

In the answer to those questions lies the future of news.

Malcolm King is a professional writer who splits his time between Canberra and Adelaide. He is a regular InDaily columnist.

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